With my increase in status, I received a room of my own within the Western Palace, complete with bed, furnishings, an array of silk gowns, embroidered slippers, jewelry, hair accessories, and my own personal maid. In a matter of hours, I had ascended from the lowest levels of Naraka to the highest realms of Heaven, and falling on my knees, I thanked the gods for their mercy.
The first thing I did was send for Xiaoli. So much time had passed. It had been the beginning of spring when I was sent to the Cold Palace, and now it was nearly midwinter. Still, the terror and apprehension of those long months lingered with me, screams and phantom sobs still ringing in my ears. I was desperate to look upon a kind face, to find solace in the embrace of a friend. And indeed, Xiaoli threw her arms around me as soon as she saw me, forgetting all requirements of rank.
“I thought you were dead!” she cried, wiping away stray tears. “I asked the eunuchs what had become of you, and they said you were punished for insulting the Empress. Oh Sister Wei, tell me what happened. Where have you been?”
I told her I had slipped a poem in with a bolt of silk bound for the Empress' chambers, and the ink had left a stain on the fabric. Enraged, the Empress sent me to the Cold Palace, but when she finally read the poem, she was so moved, she released me and rewarded me with a new title. This was the closest version of the truth I could offer. Though it pained me to lie to my closest friend, I couldn’t bear the thought of my secrets spreading across the Flank Court like spilled wine. Still, Xiaoli’s eyes lit up like lanterns in vicarious joy.
“You slipped a poem in with her silk?” she said. “I would have never thought to be so bold. No wonder she has favored you so.”
“Have you… also been striving to to catch the Empress’ eye?” I asked tentatively. Of course, I had no such ambitions myself, only stumbled into her favor by chance. Xiaoli, however, had been at court for years, a fact for which I feared she would resent me.
But she only answered with a shrug. “Not so much as of late.” We settled at a low table where my maid was preparing tea. “I did when I first arrived, but did not much care for the… aggressive tactics some women would resort to. Now it feels like quite a pointless endeavor.”
I smiled at that. She really was like Yingjie. Too mild-mannered to be competitive. It was still a marvel to me how he had managed to do so well in his military career.
“Anyway…” she continued. “My family has already reaped the benefits of having a daughter in the Imperial Court. My sister has married well, and Her Highness gave my father a title to get around the rules against merchants serving in court. My brothers will now be allowed to take the civil service exam.” Her cup of tea lingered untouched, and I realized that she wouldn’t drink until I did. Quickly, I lifted mine to my lips. “Thus, I am content with my present position, even if it means only occasionally playing music for the Empress.” Finally, she took a sip from her cup.
“She asked me to be her personal attendant,” I admitted. “But I’m not entirely sure what to expect.”
Xiaoli paused thoughtfully, blowing the steam over her tea like fog on a green lake. “I would advise you to practice your calligraphy. Particularly your clerical script. Her attendants are often expected to perform secretarial duties.”
I winced, remembering how the Empress had criticized my script in her tirade. After so long in the Cold Palace, I was out of practice. I made a mental note to visit the Institute of Letters as soon as I was able.
“You will likely attend on her during her audiences with the ministers and will therefore be in the presence of men,” Xiaoli continued. “The Crown Prince is sometimes in attendance as well. You are not, under any circumstances, to speak to him. The Empress is very protective.”
“You mean to say that the Empress holds audience with the ministers?” I questioned. “Not the Emperor?”
Xiaoli’s eyes shifted towards the maid, now standing at the corner of the room, then leaned in so as not to be overheard. “The Emperor has not been well as of late. He has delegated most of his duties to the Empress in his stead. You must not remark upon this. Anyone perceived to be critical of Her Highness’ authority has been dismissed, or worse.”
It suddenly became clearer to me why the Empress had reacted the way she did to my poem. Its peculiar wording could most certainly have been read as a criticism. Still, I was more impressed than scandalized to hear of the Empress’ assumption of Imperial authority. For a woman to be allowed so much command not only over His Majesty's chief ministers, but the greatest Empire on earth was unthinkable. No part of me could feel disparaging towards her, only deeply envious.
“There is one other thing…” The color in Xiaoli’s face heightened. “You may occasionally be called to chamber duties.”
“Chamber duties?” I leaned in even closer to catch her whispered words.
“Readying the Empress for bed, combing her hair, helping her undress, whatever else she might ask of you,” she explained. “There are sometimes certain… unsavory aspects to it, but it’s bearable enough.”
She would not elaborate more. I could only assume that by “unsavory aspects” she meant emptying the Empress’ chamber pot.
Over the following weeks, I was initiated into my role as attendant, which required that much of my attention be focused solely on the Empress’ wine cup. During her meetings with generals, emissaries, or ministers I was to keep it perpetually filled. Otherwise, I spent much of my time standing in the corner of the room, unnoticeable as furniture, eavesdropping on the many threads of conversation. From every corner of the Empire, they unspooled towards this woman who wove her way masterfully through the intricacies of state affairs. To the Minister of Public Works, she commanded the distribution of stores from palace granaries and ice pits to those suffering from the famine. To the Minister of War, she commanded the dispatch of troops to Khitan against two local chieftains who were leading a rebellion. Yet, most extraordinary of all, was her exchange with an emissary from the Türkic Khaganate in the north.
The Khagan, now mourning the loss of his most beloved Khatun, now wished to make peace with the Chinese people through a proposed marriage alliance.
“Such a proposal is out of the question, Your Highness,” the chancellor explained as he translated the emissary’s message to the Empress. “The Khagan does not beg a Chinese princess for one of his sons, but rather, a prince for one of his daughters.” With a sneer of disgust, he added. “Since ancient times, no son of the Imperial family has ever taken a barbarian woman to wife.”
Clearly, he believed the Empress would take his side on this. The Emperor certainly would have. He would have shared the minister’s revulsion at the thought of a barbarian bride for his son, then, without a thought, would have given his daughter to a barbarian husband. Ancestral tradition would have carried on unquestioned and untrammeled, but the Empress did not rush to his support. Instead, she remained silent a long while, considering. When she finally spoke, her words came low and clear as ice.
“His Majesty the Emperor has labored hard for many years to establish peace along our Empire’s northern borders,” she intoned. “As did his father before him and mine before his.” She paused, allowing the whole room to absorb the reminder that she shared a twofold kinship within the line of Emperors, a lineage that spanned two dynasties. “Were our own daughter still among the living, we would honor the Khagan by offering a High Imperial Princess to seal a lasting peace between our peoples, but to our great sorrow, she has gone to join our ancestors.” Another pause, every breath held, all eyes fixed on her. She continued. “Therefore, in absence of a princess, we hope the Khagan will accept our nephew, Li Yanxiu, instead.”
Murmurs filled the chamber like a thousand, rustling wings. The chancellor spun around, flushed with shock and indignation.
“Your Highness, you cannot—” But her eyes shot through him like arrows to the throat. He bowed, forgetting his protest, and turned towards the emissary to translate the Empress’ offer.
Still, the divergence was so shocking, even I was stunned, nearly allowing the Empress’ cup run dry. After all, such an exchange was indeed unprecedented. Princesses—daughters in any sense—were the only currency by which family alliances could be bought and sold. It was the sole means by which we could atone for our failure of birth. Surely, this was why the Khagan demanded a prince instead of a princess, as an insult, to suggest that our men were interchangeable with our women.
However, as the Empress explained to me later that night in her bedchamber, the nephew in question was a rake and a reprobate, one she exiled herself after he raped the Crown Prince’s concubine. By her own estimation, he was of far lesser value than any princess of her blood.
“I can play these silly power games just as well,” she said, kneeling before a bronze mirror. “If a prince will keep them from razing villages and abducting peasant girls, fine. But he won’t be the best I have to offer.”
I kneeled behind her, removing the phoenix headdress, false hair, and pins from her towering bouffant. All the other maids had been dismissed, and it was only with great trepidation that I combed out her long, dark locks, running like black rivers through my fingers.
“Do you think that will stop their attacks along the northern border?” I asked.
She stifled a snort. “For a while, perhaps. Certainly not for good.” She turned on me a sardonic smile. “These barbarian tribes are like wild dogs. Constantly roaming. Constantly warring. Domesticate one and it’s only a matter of time before another comes to devour it. The best way to deal with them is to pit them against each other like cockerels and toss a princess to the victor.”
Setting the comb down, I poured water into a basin between my knees. “Your Highness has a great deal of wisdom in these matters,” I commented, wetting a towel in the basin. I carefully wiped the powder, rouge, and kohl from her face, concentrating so as not to mar the flawless skin beneath. It was as I was scrubbing away the huadian on her forehead that I uncovered a mark more permanent underneath.
I had seen it before, emblazoned on the foreheads of the women who worked in the silk workshop, the laundry, the kitchens and privies. All wore a single character tattooed on their brow, and even before attending the Institute of Letters, I could read what it said:
Eyes darting away, I prayed she didn’t catch me staring. I submerged the towel into the basin and wrung it out, turning the water a milky grey. Picking it up, I made to stand, but the Empress caught my wrist, taking the basin from my hands and setting it aside.
“Undress me,” she commanded, her voice low and husky, eyes gleaming like obsidian.
Hands trembling, I did as she asked, heat rising to my face as I loosened the ties of her robe and let it slip off her shoulders. Reaching for her hezi, I hesitated, unsure if I should continue. It tied in the back and would require that I near embraced her, but she nodded, signaling me to continue. So too did I unwind the belt of her skirt, the ties of her blouse. By the end, I fixed my gaze firmly to the floor so that I wouldn’t stare at her naked breasts, pale and heavy as pears.
However, she slipped her fingers beneath my chin, tilting my head back up. “Now you undress as well,” she said.
In truth, I had awaited this moment with just as much anticipation as trepidation. Since that very first kiss, I would lie awake some nights, remembering the petal-like softness of her lips against mine, the dizzying scent of her perfume, the intensity of those dark eyes. Though I still wore the stripes of her cruelty on my back, my desire would smolder in my belly like an ember in a bed of tinder.
Now, faced with the prospect of ignition, I could not think of what to do, how to act. What would be permitted of me, demanded of me? What would become of me should I fail to please her? Shedding my robes, my heart beat 500 tattoos of the watchtower’s drum, closing me with temptation and torment alike. Soon I was bare before her, vulnerable to her salient gaze.
Her lips curved like a scythe, and my breath hitched as she leaned forward and brought them close to my ear, her breasts brushing mine, breath upon my neck. “What shall I do with you now?” she whispered, taking my earlobe into her mouth.
It traveled, that mouth of hers, along my jaw, down my neck, over my breasts, teasing with teeth and tongue until the smolder at my center became almost unbearable. I had been a virgin, lacking all insight into the art of love and its myriad forms. I only knew that whatever this was, whatever she was doing, I didn’t want it to stop.
For half the night, it didn’t stop. She took me to her bed and with her mouth, with her hands, with her caressing ministrations, brought me to states of ecstasies I didn’t know were possible. This body of mine, so reviled and useless, became for me a conduit through which all earthly joys could pass. By the end, I laid spent in her arms, aglow with a peace beyond all understanding, forgetting any world beyond the confines of her bed.
I thought I understood then why so many fought for the Empress’ favor. Who wouldn’t wish to feel so treasured, so adored, so loved within their wholeness of their self? Surely, this was the what all the women of the Flank Court lay awake at night dreaming of. This and nothing else. But in the haze of my bliss, I had conveniently forgotten yet another who occupied the Imperial bed.